It’s a scene all too familiar to police officers worldwide: they’ve responded to a domestic violence case, seen the bruises, gathered statements from the caller, the alleged abuser, the neighbours and the family. Then, days or even moments later, long before the case is due to come to court, the charges are dropped as the caller recants the testimony, saying it was all a lie, only reported to put the alleged abuser in trouble.
Note that word ‘alleged’. In most countries, citizens are innocent until proven guilty, so that if a victim recants an allegation, the police can do nothing, not even when it happens again; and again.
Some spouses have recanted those ‘trouble-making’ claims until the day that their alleged abuser became their murderer.
However, the understanding that physical violence is just one facet of a coercive relationship is becoming better known. A scant few decades ago, most people would have expressed sympathy for a battered spouse, but believed that anyone who chooses to stay with an abuser is at fault for not simply leaving – and decidedly at fault for choosing to recant testimony that might have saved them from further abuse.
Of course, the very real fact is that the coerced domestic partner isn’t staying on a capricious whim, or even out of complacency. Besides the very real financial and logistical hardships inherent in breaking up a household, the real reason a coerced spouse stays can be boiled down to one word: fear.
Those who use fear to control their domestic partners know how to wield the weapon well, sometimes so skilfully and subtly that only those held in the vice-grip of terror will even know that coercion is happening. And, sadly, even if everyone in the neighbourhood does know what is happening behind closed doors, the refutations of the coerced spouse have been, in the past, enough to bring the progress of any legal action against the abuser to a screeching halt.
Thankfully, in some countries at least, the tide is changing. Here at the Open Minds Foundation, we know that the levers and pulleys of undue influence are seen not only in the realm of large groups of spiritual prisoners like the Moonies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses or even the massacred People’s Temple commune at Jonestown: it can be seen in schools, in businesses – and even in the home, where the power dynamic is simplified to one leader and one follower. Sadly there are even people who call themselves ‘counsellors’ and abuse their clients.
Whether the people involved number two million or only two, the results can be just as deadly: consider the ill-fated followers of Jim Jones – who fiercely loved the man they called ‘Father,’ but were ultimately so frightened of him that husbands and wives dared not admit to each other that they wished to leave; and compare the level of undue influence to the case of a man so embarrassed by the real circumstances behind the bruises on his cheek that he will readily lie to friends, family, and even medical personnel, rather than admit to being a battered spouse. Because, as any Watchtower Pioneer, practicing Scientologist, or resident of North Korea can tell you: everything is just fine, and there is absolutely nothing coercive happening here.
And although the battered male faces extra challenges due to a lack of cultural awareness of the phenomenon (now, thankfully, changing for the better), the symptoms, the methods and the cause are ultimately the same – fear is used to control, and violence is only a single tool in the abuser’s arsenal, and the fear of retribution all too real. As any police officer will tell you, it is often after the abused partner flees the relationship that the abuser will turn most violent, when, in terms of saving the relationship, there is nothing to lose. The fact that “If I can’t have her, no one will” has become a cliché speaks volumes.
With the implementation of the UK’s Coercive Control law, covered previously in this blog, the first arrests are trickling in, and, as the groundbreaking law addresses not the individual outbreaks of violent behaviour, but instead the overall atmosphere of terror-induced coercion, gaslighting, and fear-induced compliance inherent in the cycle of domestic abuse, the victim’s recanting her – or his – story can be seen in its true light: as yet another symptom of the effects of undue influence.
In the UK the new Coercive Control law no longer requires a victim’s complaint for a case to proceed to court. A 24-year-old man has been jailed for an assault on his 21-year-old girlfriend. On the night he was arrested, the man had slapped his girlfriend at a party and poured a can of beer over her head. He carried on beating the young woman until he burst her eardrum. Although the victim did not wish to press charges against her boyfriend, the new ‘victimless prosecution’ system was applied.
Police officer DCI Gadd told the press, ‘The victim had stopped engaging with health services, stopped wearing makeup or doing her hair to prevent further paranoia and jealousy.’ Judge Jeremy Richardson, QC, said, ‘That crime unquestionably calls for an immediate custodial sentence.’
The case was brought in the Humberside district, where there were 15,749 domestic abuse calls to the police last year.
The Coercive Control Act does not simply apply to violence, and it is hoped that future prosecutions will focus on the emotional and psychological control exerted by bullies in all forms of relationship. The law might also be used to jail leaders of cults, gangs, slavers, terrorist groups and paedophiles. We hope to see similar legislation enacted and acted upon around the globe.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about domestic abuse or coercive control that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Evan Stark, ‘Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women‘
Patricia Crittenden, ‘Raising Parents‘.